A Golden Evening for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Rooster

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rimsky-Korsakov, Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel): Dancers, Singers, Chorus and Orchestra of the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience named after Natalia Sats / Alevtina Ioffe. (conductor),  London Coliseum, London, 8.7.2014. (JPr).

GOLDEN COCKEREL by Saisons Russes.  Photo by Valerie Komissarova
GOLDEN COCKEREL by Saisons Russes. Photo by Valerie Komissarova

King Dodon: Alexander Tslinko/ Oleg Fomin
Prince Gvidon: Sergey Petrishchev/Ektarina Blashchik
Prince Afron: Denis Boldov/Ektarina Zaitseva
General Polkan: Nikolay Petrenko/Dmitry Kruglov
Astrologer: Petr Melentiev/ Maksim Podshivalenko
Queen of Shemakha: Olesya Titenko/ Natalia Savelieva
Amelfa, housekeeper: Natalia Eliseeva/ Julia Selivanova
Golden Cockerel: Zarina Samadova/ Pavel Okunev

This fascinating evening – one of the most enthralling I have been to recently – celebrates the centenary of Rimsky-Korsakov’s much-neglected work Le Coq d’Or as an opera-ballet. Thanks to Les Saisons Russes’ former Bolshoi Ballet star dancer (now turned ballet entrepreneur, director and producer ) Andris Liepa it appears for just three nights at the London Coliseum performed by the ballet, orchestra and chorus from Moscow’s Natalia Sats Moscow State Opera and Ballet Theatre. This is the world’s first – and only – music theatre for children, young, people and the family. It is a full-scale opera and ballet theatre, but its programming is geared to those of all ages and ranges from classical and contemporary to opera and ballet, symphony concerts and education.

What we see is loosely based on Alexander Pushkin’s 1834 ‘Tale of the Golden Cockerel’ and we are presented with a fairy-tale which I suspect is allegorical as most fairy-tales are. The bird of the title is offered to the foolish Tsar Dodon – ofthe thrice-tenth kingdom, a far off place (beyond thrice-nine lands) – by the court Astrologer to crow when danger threatens. In exchange, Dodon vows to grant the Astrologer a future wish regardless of what it is. Content about his safety Dodon can sleep but first he has a vision of a mysterious eastern beauty and soon the Golden Cockerel crows and Dodon rushes into battle. He arrives on the battlefield to find that his inept sons have not managed to defeat the enemy but have killed each other. Instead, he finds the Queen of Shemakha, who he had seen in his dreams, and is now infatuated with after she seduces him. He proposes to her and they return to Dodon’s homeland to marry only to discover that the Astrologer’s wish is to have the Queen for himself! Dodon refuses, kills the Astrologer, and the Golden Cockerel in turn kills Dodon as the Queen disappears with a shriek of laughter. The people are left puzzled as to what they will do now without their Tsar. The Astrologer (who in this staging is dressed as Diaghilev himself) then re-appears for an epilogue where we are told that most of what we have seen was of course an illusion – only he and the Queen were real.

As much as it is a fairy-tale, Le Coq d’Or is clearly a political satire written as it was just a couple of years after the first Russian Revolution and the disastrous Russo-Japanese War. It clearly lampoons the incompetence of Tsar Nicholas II and I wonder whether its moral of ‘never trust a beautiful woman’ had anything to do with Empress Alexandra. The opera was finished in 1907 and was immediately banned by the Palace and subsequently continued to fall foul (fowl? cockerel?) of the censors. Rimsky-Korsakov’s health probably suffered because of the notoriety and he had died by the time it was performed two years later. (My mind wandered and I could clearly foresee a revisionist collaboration between English National Opera and English National ballet with the staging based on Russia in 2014 under ‘Tsar’ Vladmir Putin … and what fun that would be.)

On the cusp of WWI it was staged in Paris as an opera-ballet, with choreography by Michel Fokine (now lost except for a few minutes on film) with vibrant, brightly coloured set designs by Natalia Goncharova that have been lovingly recreated by Vyacheslav Okunev. Gali Abaidulov’s new choreography pays homage to Fokine but mostly involves lots of mime and high-stepping folk dancing, apart from the perpetual motion of the ever-spinning Golden Cockerel (the virtuosic Pavel Okunev) and the limber, languid, dream-like eroticism of Natalia Savelieva’s Queen of Shemakha. Elsewhere the cast of characters looked like they were part of a toy theatre that had magically come – Coppélia-­like – to life and there was a lot of emoting: however, every movement, gesture or grimace seemed entirely appropriate to the story being told. Never has there been so many cotton-wool beards in one place since the last time a major department store auditioned their Santa Clauses! The whole ensemble danced well and their – seemingly genuine – enthusiasm for what they were doing added to my own pleasure in what I was watching.

This is the third time Andris Liepa has brought his Diaghilev exhumations to the London Coliseum and this is the finest show he has presented so far. To paraphrase something in the lavish printed programme, The Golden Cockerel is not an archive restoration, but a creative flight of Russian Seasons’ fantasy through a century. In front of the now-familiar stunningly gaudy Ballet Russes front cloth, Liepa, in his disarmingly charming fractured English paid his usual tribute to Diaghilev and Fokine (most of this is to be found in my 2011 interview with him https://www.seenandheard-international.com/2011/04/13/andris-liepa-introduces-the-diaghilev-festival-an-interview-with-jim-pritchard/) and the work of the Moscow State Theatre for Young Audiences named after Natalia Sats.

There are few opportunities even in 2014 for ballet and opera to be performed so synergistically, and it is thanks to Diaghilev’s modernist vision we get the chance to appreciate such a rare occurrence here. Le Coq d’Or sees singers in concert attire share the stage with the dancers and represent the inner life of the characters we see whilst the dancers themselves personify the singers’ narrative. The Queen of Shemakha’s sensuous singing can be visualised as pure movement and the Golden Cockerel’s cock-a-doodle-doo leitmotif can be its whirling motion. The chorus wander on and off stage and underscore what we are seeing in the manner of a Greek Chorus. Rimsky-Korsakov’s score is a delight of colour and tunefulness and alive with nuance and musical detail that is given full value by an excellent orchestra and the expansive and febrile conducting of Alevtina Ioffe. This emphasised once again how much better classical ballet (and even some modern dance) is with live – rather than recorded – music.

It is also fiendishly difficult to sing and seems to encompass the full range of whatever voice type. For instance, the role of the Astrologer was originally written for a rare type of voice even in 1907, that of tenor altino – a male alto capable of sustained singing at the very top of his voice. At this performance the fine high tenor, Petr Melentiev – who like many of his colleagues never made it sound easy because it isn’t – was a major part of the evening’s overall success. It was a formidable ensemble of clearly experienced singers led by marvellous performances from Alexander Tslinko’s richly resonant Dodon, the wonderfully secure – and occasionally glittering – coloratura of Olesya Titenko as Queen of Shemakha and the suitably crowing Zarina Samadova as the Golden Cockerel.

This was a splendid evening and if you get an opportunity to see this version of Le Coq d’Or do go!

Jim Pritchard

For more about this continuing Diaghilev Festival and other ballet at the London Coliseum visit www.eno.org